Target Corp.’s decision to Ban the Box is a victory for many ex-offenders, and a wise and moral move for the wildly popular discounter.
But it would be a shame to ignore the impressive back story that undoubtedly influenced Target’s evolution.
Minnesota is the third state to implement Ban the Box, which goes into effect Jan. 1. The law mandates that employers wait until a prospective employee is being interviewed to ask about a criminal past.
For nearly three years, a grass-roots effort has been building on Minneapolis’ North Side in support of the change. The effort began in April 2011 when leaders from TakeAction Minnesota, a network of people working for social justice, held a series of meetings asking North Siders to share personal stories and ideas for strengthening community and families.
The most urgent need: Jobs. Jobs especially for people coming out of prison or workhouses, desperate for a second chance.
I’ve spoken to many ex-offenders filled with gratitude when given the chance to tell their story face to face and many employers who speak with respect about these workers’ dedication and work ethic.
Still, TakeAction was pushing uphill. Minnesota has the widest racial jobs gap in the country. African-Americans in the Twin Cities, for example, are three times more likely to be unemployed as whites.
Connected to unemployment is an alarmingly high recidivism rate, which counts how often someone who comes out of prison commits another crime. More than 60 percent of people leaving the criminal justice system in Minnesota return within three years.
Having a job is a proven remedy for many, and Target, with 75 stores in Minnesota, was a desirable partner. They just needed to be convinced.
“They were saying that they are all about the community,” said Justin Terrell, campaign manager for a TakeAction program called Justice 4 All, which addresses injustices in the criminal justice system.
“But they were disconnected from the reality of this community’s experience of trying to get hired after serving time,” Terrell said. “That’s when we organized to get their attention.”
In May 2012, TakeAction brought 200 protesters into the lobby of Target’s downtown Minneapolis headquarters. Beginning in July 2012, Terrell and others began encouraging people with criminal records to apply for Target positions. More than 150 people filled out job applications, including 35 people who did so during the busy holiday season.
Everyone was asked, “If you get the job, will you take it?” Terrell said. “They all said yes.”
But they were all rejected.
Marcel Urman of St. Paul was among those turned down. Urman served a total of 10 years in correctional facilities over about 16 years. While there, the 38-year-old father of five earned a barber license and a degree in business management.
He came out and struggled to get a job. Today, Urman works full time as a career coach for Minneapolis’ Emerge Community Development, focusing on getting people back to work. He understands their struggle, he said.
“I know what it takes to fight to get a job,” he said.
Urman was among many standing in the bitter cold in February 2013 to support TakeAction and the NAACP as they helped 10 people file formal complaints of unfair hiring practices against Target. He supported fellow leaders of TakeAction when they flew to Target’s shareholders meeting in Denver.
And on Oct. 24, Urman shared a slide show of his life, before and after his conviction, at a meeting that became a heartening turning point in the three-year effort.
Speaking in north Minneapolis that evening to close to 500 people (100 of them via live-streaming), Target leaders committed to removing the criminal-history box from its job applications in Minnesota and nationwide.
In addition, Target announced that it will invest $100,000 in the Council on Crime and Justice’s Second Chance Saturday program, which helps people with criminal records get back on the employment track.
Jim Rowader, Target’s vice president of labor and employee relations, said he never viewed the relationship between his company and TakeAction “as all that combative.” He offered high praise for Terrell, in whom “we found somebody who had plenty of passion but was interested in having patience, too. I found our early conversations to be very productive.”
Both men are committed to productive conversations going forward.
“They’re doing much better,” Terrell said of Target and its growing awareness of a powerful reality.
“When you don’t give someone a second chance,” Terrell said, “our community doesn’t heal.”